Poems & Short Stories: 4,271
Forum Members: 70,634
Forum Posts: 1,033,546
And over 2 million unique readers monthly!
When ye say to Tabaqui, "My Brother!" when ye call the
Hyena to meat,
Ye may cry the Full Truce with Jacala--the Belly that runs
on four feet.
"Respect the aged!"
"It was a thick voice--a muddy voice that would have made you
shudder--a voice like something soft breaking in two. There was
a quaver in it, a croak and a whine.
"Respect the aged! O Companions of the River--respect the aged!"
Nothing could be seen on the broad reach of the river except a
little fleet of square-sailed, wooden-pinned barges, loaded with
building-stone, that had just come under the railway bridge, and
were driving down-stream. They put their clumsy helms over to
avoid the sand-bar made by the scour of the bridge-piers, and as
they passed, three abreast, the horrible voice began again:
"O Brahmins of the River--respect the aged and infirm!"
A boatman turned where he sat on the gunwale, lifted up his
hand, said something that was not a blessing, and the boats
creaked on through the twilight. The broad Indian river, that
looked more like a chain of little lakes than a stream, was as
smooth as glass, reflecting the sandy-red sky in mid-channel,
but splashed with patches of yellow and dusky purple near and
under the low banks. Little creeks ran into the river in the wet
season, but now their dry mouths hung clear above water-line.
On the left shore, and almost under the railway bridge, stood a
mud-and-brick and thatch-and-stick village, whose main street,
full of cattle going back to their byres, ran straight to the
river, and ended in a sort of rude brick pier-head, where people
who wanted to wash could wade in step by step. That was the
Ghaut of the village of Mugger-Ghaut.
Night was falling fast over the fields of lentils and rice and
cotton in the low-lying ground yearly flooded by the river;
over the reeds that fringed the elbow of the bend, and the
tangled jungle of the grazing-grounds behind the still reeds.
The parrots and crows, who had been chattering and shouting over
their evening drink, had flown inland to roost, crossing the
out-going battalions of the flying-foxes; and cloud upon cloud
of water-birds came whistling and "honking" to the cover of the
reed-beds. There were geese, barrel-headed and black-backed,
teal, widgeon, mallard, and sheldrake, with curlews, and here
and there a flamingo.
A lumbering Adjutant-crane brought up the rear, flying as though
each slow stroke would be his last.
"Respect the aged! Brahmins of the River--respect the aged!"
The Adjutant half turned his head, sheered a little in the
direction of the voice, and landed stiffly on the sand-bar below
the bridge. Then you saw what a ruffianly brute he really was.
His back view was immensely respectable, for he stood nearly six
feet high, and looked rather like a very proper bald-headed
parson. In front it was different, for his Ally Sloper-like head
and neck had not a feather to them, and there was a horrible
raw-skin pouch on his neck under his chin--a hold-all for the
things his pick-axe beak might steal. His legs were long and
thin and skinny, but he moved them delicately, and looked at
them with pride as he preened down his ashy-gray tail-feathers,
glanced over the smooth of his shoulder, and stiffened into
"Stand at attention."
A mangy little Jackal, who had been yapping hungrily on a low
bluff, cocked up his ears and tail, and scuttered across the
shallows to join the Adjutant.
He was the lowest of his caste--not that the best of jackals are
good for much, but this one was peculiarly low, being half a
beggar, half a criminal--a cleaner-up of village rubbish-heaps,
desperately timid or wildly bold, everlastingly hungry, and full
of cunning that never did him any good.
"Ugh!" he said, shaking himself dolefully as he landed. "May the
red mange destroy the dogs of this village! I have three bites
for each flea upon me, and all because I looked--only looked,
mark you--at an old shoe in a cow-byre. Can I eat mud?"
He scratched himself under his left ear.
"I heard," said the Adjutant, in a voice like a blunt saw going
through a thick board--"I HEARD there was a new-born puppy in
that same shoe."
"To hear is one thing; to know is another," said the Jackal, who
had a very fair knowledge of proverbs, picked up by listening to
men round the village fires of an evening.
"Quite true. So, to make sure, I took care of that puppy while
the dogs were busy elsewhere."
"They were VERY busy," said the Jackal. "Well, I must not go to
the village hunting for scraps yet awhile. And so there truly
was a blind puppy in that shoe?"
"It is here," said the Adjutant, squinting over his beak at his
full pouch. "A small thing, but acceptable now that charity is
dead in the world."
"Ahai! The world is iron in these days," wailed the Jackal.
Then his restless eye caught the least possible ripple on the
water, and he went on quickly: "Life is hard for us all, and
I doubt not that even our excellent master, the Pride of the
Ghaut and the Envy of the River----"
"A liar, a flatterer, and a Jackal were all hatched out of the
same egg," said the Adjutant to nobody in particular; for he
was rather a fine sort of a liar on his own account when he
took the trouble.
"Yes, the Envy of the River," the Jackal repeated, raising his
voice. "Even he, I doubt not, finds that since the bridge has
been built good food is more scarce. But on the other hand,
though I would by no means say this to his noble face, he is so
wise and so virtuous--as I, alas I am not----"
"When the Jackal owns he is gray, how black must the Jackal be!"
muttered the Adjutant. He could not see what was coming.
"That his food never fails, and in consequence----"
There was a soft grating sound, as though a boat had just
touched in shoal water. The Jackal spun round quickly and faced
(it is always best to face) the creature he had been talking
about. It was a twenty-four-foot crocodile, cased in what looked
like treble-riveted boiler-plate, studded and keeled and
crested; the yellow points of his upper teeth just overhanging
his beautifully fluted lower jaw. It was the blunt-nosed Mugger
of Mugger-Ghaut, older than any man in the village, who had
given his name to the village; the demon of the ford before the
railway bridge, came--murderer, man-eater, and local fetish in
one. He lay with his chin in the shallows, keeping his place by
an almost invisible rippling of his tail, and well the Jackal
knew that one stroke of that same tail in the water would carry
the Mugger up the bank with the rush of a steam-engine.
"Auspiciously met, Protector of the Poor!" he fawned, backing
at every word. "A delectable voice was heard, and we came in
the hopes of sweet conversation. My tailless presumption, while
waiting here, led me, indeed, to speak of thee. It is my hope
that nothing was overheard."
Now the Jackal had spoken just to be listened to, for he knew
flattery was the best way of getting things to eat, and the
Mugger knew that the Jackal had spoken for this end, and the
Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and the Mugger knew that
the Jackal knew that the Mugger knew, and so they were all
very contented together.
The old brute pushed and panted and grunted up the bank,
mumbling, "Respect the aged and infirm!" and all the time his
little eyes burned like coals under the heavy, horny eyelids
on the top of his triangular head, as he shoved his bloated
barrel-body along between his crutched legs. Then he settled
down, and, accustomed as the Jackal was to his ways, he could
not help starting, for the hundredth time, when he saw how
exactly the Mugger imitated a log adrift on the bar. He had
even taken pains to lie at the exact angle a naturally stranded
log would make with the water, having regard to the current of
he season at the time and place. All this was only a matter of
habit, of course, because the Mugger had come ashore for
pleasure; but a crocodile is never quite full, and if the Jackal
had been deceived by the likeness he would not have lived to
philosophise over it.
"My child, I heard nothing," said the Mugger, shutting one eye.
"The water was in my ears, and also I was faint with hunger.
Since the railway bridge was built my people at my village have
ceased to love me; and that is breaking my heart."
"Ah, shame!" said the Jackal. "So noble a heart, too! But men
are all alike, to my mind."
"Nay, there are very great differences indeed," the Mugger
answered gently. "Some are as lean asboat-poles. Others again
are fat as young ja--dogs. Never would I causelessly revile men.
They are of all fashions, but the long years have shown me that,
one with another, they are very good. Men, women, and children--
I have no fault to find with them. And remember, child, he who
rebukes the World is rebuked by the World."
"Flattery is worse than an empty tin can in the belly. But that
which we have just heard is wisdom," said the Adjutant, bringing
down one foot.
"Consider, though, their ingratitude to this excellent one,"
began the Jackal tenderly.
"Nay, nay, not ingratitude!" the Mugger said. They do not think
for others; that is all. But I have noticed, lying at my station
below the ford, that the stairs of the new bridge are cruelly
hard to climb, both for old people and young children. The old,
indeed, are not so worthy of consideration, but I am grieved--
I am truly grieved--on account of the fat children. Still,
I think, in a little while, when the newness of the bridge has
worn away, we shall see my people"s bare brown legs bravely
splashing through the ford as before. Then the old Mugger will
be honoured again."
"But surely I saw Marigold wreaths floating off the edge of the
Ghaut only this noon," said the Adjutant.
Marigold wreaths are a sign of reverence all India over.
"An error--an error. It was the wife of the sweetmeat-seller.
She loses her eyesight year by year, and cannot tell a log from
me--the Mugger of the Ghaut. I saw the mistake when she threw
the garland, for I was lying at the very foot of the Ghaut, and
had she taken another step I might have shown her some little
difference. Yet she meant well, and we must consider the spirit
of the offering."
"What good are marigold wreaths when one is on the rubbish-
heap?" said the Jackal, hunting for fleas, but keeping one wary
eye on his Protector of the Poor.
"True, but they have not yet begun to make the rubbish-heap that
shall carry ME. Five times have I seen the river draw back from
the village and make new land at the foot of the street. Five
times have I seen the village rebuilt on the banks, and I shall
see it built yet five times more. I am no faithless, fish-
hunting Gavial, I, at Kasi to-day and Prayag to-morrow, as the
saying is, but the true and constant watcher of the ford. It is
not for nothing, child, that the village bears my name, and "he
who watches long," as the saying is, "shall at last have his
"_I_ have watched long--very long--nearly all my life, and my
reward has been bites and blows," said the Jackal.
"Ho! ho! ho!" roared the Adjutant.
"In August was the Jackal born;
The Rains fell in September;
"Now such a fearful flood as this,"
Says he, "I can"t remember!""
There is one very unpleasant peculiarity about the Adjutant.
At uncertain times he suffers from acute attacks of the fidgets
or cramp in his legs, and though he is more virtuous to behold
than any of the cranes, who are all immensely respectable,
he flies off into wild, cripple-stilt war-dances, half opening
his wings and bobbing his bald head up and down; while for
reasons best known to himself he is very careful to time his
worst attacks with his nastiest remarks. At the last word of
his song he came to attention again, ten times adjutaunter
The Jackal winced, though he was full three seasons old, but you
cannot resent an insult from a person with a beak a yard long,
and the power of driving it like a javelin. The Adjutant was a
most notorious coward, but the Jackal was worse.
"We must live before we can learn," said the Mugger, "and there
is this to say: Little jackals are very common, child, but such
a mugger as I am is not common. For all that, I am not proud,
since pride is destruction; but take notice, it is Fate, and
against his Fate no one who swims or walks or runs should say
anything at all. I am well contented with Fate. With good luck,
a keen eye, and the custom of considering whether a creek or a
backwater has an outlet to it ere you ascend, much may be done."
"Once I heard that even the Protector of the Poor made a
mistake," said the Jackal viciously.
"True; but there my Fate helped me. It was before I had come to
my full growth--before the last famine but three (by the Right
and Left of Gunga, how full used the streams to be in those
days!). Yes, I was young and unthinking, and when the flood
came, who so pleased as I? A little made me very happy then.
The village was deep in flood, and I swam above the Ghaut and
went far inland, up to the rice-fields, and they were deep in
good mud. I remember also a pair of bracelets (glass they were,
and troubled me not a little) that I found that evening. Yes,
glass bracelets; and, if my memory serves me well, a shoe.
I should have shaken off both shoes, but I was hungry. I learned
better later. Yes. And so I fed and rested me; but when I was
ready to go to the river again the flood had fallen, and I
walked through the mud of the main street. Who but I? Came out
all my people, priests and women and children, and I looked upon
them with benevolence. The mud is not a good place to fight in.
Said a boatman, "Get axes and kill him, for he is the Mugger of
the ford." "Not so," said the Brahmin. "Look, he is driving the
flood before him! He is the godling of the village." Then they
threw many flowers at me, and by happy thought one led a goat
across the road."
"How good--how very good is goat!" said the Jackal.
"Hairy--too hairy, and when found in the water more than likely
to hide a cross-shaped hook. But that goat I accepted, and went
down to the Ghaut in great honour. Later, my Fate sent me the
boatman who had desired to cut off my tail with an axe. His boat
grounded upon an old shoal which you would not remember."
"We are not ALL jackals here," said the Adjutant. Was it the
shoal made where the stone-boats sank in the year of the great
drouth--a long shoal that lasted three floods?"
"There were two," said the Mugger; "an upper and a lower shoal."
"Ay, I forgot. A channel divided them, and later dried up
again," said the Adjutant, who prided himself on his memory.
"On the lower shoal my well-wisher"s craft grounded. He was
sleeping in the bows, and, half awake, leaped over to his
waist--no, it was no more than to his knees--to push off.
His empty boat went on and touched again below the next reach,
as the river ran then. I followed, because I knew men would
come out to drag it ashore."
"And did they do so?" said the Jackal, a little awe-stricken.
This was hunting on a scale that impressed him.
"There and lower down they did. I went no farther, but that gave
me three in one day--well-fed manjis (boatmen) all, and, except
in the case of the last (then I was careless), never a cry to
warn those on the bank."
"Ah, noble sport! But what cleverness and great judgment it
requires!" said the Jackal.
"Not cleverness, child, but only thought. A little thought in
life is like salt upon rice, as the boatmen say, and I have
thought deeply always. The Gavial, my cousin, the fish-eater,
has told me how hard it is for him to follow his fish, and how
one fish differs from the other, and how he must know them all,
both together and apart. I say that is wisdom; but, on the other
hand, my cousin, the Gavial, lives among his people. MY people
do not swim in companies, with their mouths out of the water, as
Rewa does; nor do they constantly rise to the surface of the
water, and turn over on their sides, like Mohoo and little
Chapta; nor do they gather in shoals after flood, like Batchua
"All are very good eating," said the Adjutant, clattering
"So my cousin says, and makes a great to-do over hunting them,
but they do not climb the banks to escape his sharp nose.
MY people are otherwise. Their life is on the land, in the
houses, among the cattle. I must know what they do, and what
they are about to do; and adding the tail to the trunk, as the
saying is, I make up the whole elephant. Is there a green branch
and an iron ring hanging over a doorway? The old Mugger knows
that a boy has been born in that house, and must some day come
down to the Ghaut to play. Is a maiden to be married?
The old Mugger knows, for he sees the men carry gifts back and
forth; and she, too, comes down to the Ghaut to bathe before
her wedding, and--he is there. Has the river changed its
channel, and made new land where there was only sand before?
The Mugger knows."
"Now, of what use is that knowledge?" said the Jackal.
"The river has shifted even in my little life." Indian rivers
are nearly always moving about in their beds, and will shift,
sometimes, as much as two or three miles in a season, drowning
the fields on one bank, and spreading good silt on the other.
"There is no knowledge so useful," said the Mugger, "for new
land means new quarrels. The Mugger knows. Oho! the Mugger
knows. As soon as the water has drained off, he creeps up the
little creeks that men think would not hide a dog, and there he
waits. Presently comes a farmer saying he will plant cucumbers
here, and melons there, in the new land that the river has given
him. He feels the good mud with his bare toes. Anon comes
another, saying he will put onions, and carrots, and sugar-cane
in such and such places. They meet as boats adrift meet, and
each rolls his eye at the other under the big blue turban.
The old Mugger sees and hears. Each calls the other "Brother,"
and they go to mark out the boundaries of the new land.
The Mugger hurries with them from point to point, shuffling very
low through the mud. Now they begin to quarrel! Now they say
hot words! Now they pull turbans! Now they lift up their lathis
(clubs), and, at last, one falls backward into the mud, and the
other runs away. When he comes back the dispute is settled, as
the iron-bound bamboo of the loser witnesses. Yet they are not
grateful to the Mugger. No, they cry "Murder!" and their
families fight with sticks, twenty a-side. My people are good
people--upland Jats--Malwais of the Bet. They do not give blows
for sport, and, when the fight is done, the old Mugger waits
far down the river, out of sight of the village, behind the
kikar-scrub yonder. Then come they down, my broad-shouldered
Jats--eight or nine together under the stars, bearing the dead
man upon a bed. They are old men with gray beards, and voices as
deep as mine. They light a little fire--ah! how well I know that
fire!--and they drink tobacco, and they nod their heads together
forward in a ring, or sideways toward the dead man upon the
bank. They say the English Law will come with a rope for this
matter, and that such a man"s family will be ashamed, because
such a man must be hanged in the great square of the Jail.
Then say the friends of the dead, "Let him hang!" and the talk
is all to do over again--once, twice, twenty times in the long
night. Then says one, at last, "The fight was a fair fight.
Let us take blood-money, a little more than is offered by the
slayer, and we will say no more about it." Then do they haggle
over the blood-money, for the dead was a strong man, leaving
many sons. Yet before amratvela (sunrise) they put the fire to
him a little, as the custom is, and the dead man comes to me,
and HE says no more about it. Aha! my children, the Mugger
knows--the Mugger knows--and my Malwah Jats are a good people!"
"They are too close--too narrow in the hand for my crop,"
croaked the Adjutant. "They waste not the polish on the
cow"s horn, as the saying is; and, again, who can glean
after a Malwai?"
"Ah, I--glean--THEM," said the Mugger.
"Now, in Calcutta of the South, in the old days," the Adjutant
went on, "everything was thrown into the streets, and we picked
and chose. Those wore dainty seasons. But to-day they keep their
streets as clean as the outside of an egg, and my people fly
away. To be clean is one thing; to dust, sweep, and sprinkle
seven times a day wearies the very Gods themselves."
"There was a down-country jackal had it from a brother, who told
me, that in Calcutta of the South all the jackals were as fat as
otters in the Rains," said the Jackal, his mouth watering at the
bare thought of it.
"Ah, but the white-faces are there--the English, and they bring
dogs from somewhere down the river in boats--big fat dogs--to
keep those same jackals lean," said the Adjutant.
"They are, then, as hard-hearted as these people? I might have
known. Neither earth, sky, nor water shows charity to a jackal.
I saw the tents of a white-face last season, after the Rains,
and I also took a new yellow bridle to eat. The white-faces
do not dress their leather in the proper way. It made me
"That was better than my case," said the Adjutant. "When I was
in my third season, a young and a bold bird, I went down to the
river where the big boats come in. The boats of the English are
thrice as big as this village."
"He has been as far as Delhi, and says all the people there walk
on their heads," muttered the Jackal. The Mugger opened his left
eye, and looked keenly at the Adjutant.
"It is true," the big bird insisted. "A liar only lies when he
hopes to be believed. No one who had not seen those boats COULD
believe this truth."
"THAT is more reasonable," said the Mugger. "And then?"
"From the insides of this boat they were taking out great pieces
of white stuff, which, in a little while, turned to water.
Much split off, and fell about on the shore, and the rest they
swiftly put into a house with thick walls. But a boatman,
who laughed, took a piece no larger than a small dog, and threw
it to me. I--all my people--swallow without reflection, and that
piece I swallowed as is our custom. Immediately I was afflicted
with an excessive cold which, beginning in my crop, ran down to
the extreme end of my toes, and deprived me even of speech,
while the boatmen laughed at me. Never have I felt such cold.
I danced in my grief and amazement till I could recover my
breath and then I danced and cried out against the falseness of
this world; and the boatmen derided me till they fell down.
The chief wonder of the matter, setting aside that marvellous
coldness, was that there was nothing at all in my crop when I
had finished my lamentings!"
The Adjutant had done his very best to describe his feelings
after swallowing a seven-pound lump of Wenham Lake ice, off an
American ice-ship, in the days before Calcutta made her ice by
machinery; but as he did not know what ice was, and as the
Mugger and the Jackal knew rather less, the tale missed fire.
"Anything," said the Mugger, shutting his left eye again--
"ANYTHING is possible that comes out of a boat thrice the size
of Mugger-Ghaut. My village is not a small one."
There was a whistle overhead on the bridge, and the Delhi Mail
slid across, all the carriages gleaming with light, and the
shadows faithfully following along the river. It clanked away
into the dark again; but the Mugger and the Jackal were so well
used to it that they never turned their heads.
"Is that anything less wonderful than a boat thrice the size of
Mugger-Ghaut?" said the bird, looking up.
"I saw that built, child. Stone by stone I saw the bridge-piers
rise, and when the men fell off (they were wondrous sure-footed
for the most part--but WHEN they fell) I was ready. After the
first pier was made they never thought to look down the stream
for the body to burn. There, again, I saved much trouble.
There was nothing strange in the building of the bridge," said
"But that which goes across, pulling the roofed carts! That is
strange," the Adjutant repeated. "It is, past any doubt, a new
breed of bullock. Some day it will not be able to keep its
foothold up yonder, and will fall as the men did. The old Mugger
will then be ready."
The Jackal looked at the Adjutant and the Adjutant looked at the
Jackal. If there was one thing they were more certain of than
another, it was that the engine was everything in the wide world
except a bullock. The Jackal had watched it time and again from
the aloe hedges by the side of the line, and the Adjutant had
seen engines since the first locomotive ran in India. But the
Mugger had only looked up at the thing from below, where the
brass dome seemed rather like a bullock"s hump.
"M--yes, a new kind of bullock," the Mugger repeated
ponderously, to make himself quite sure in his own mind;
and "Certainly it is a bullock," said the Jackal.
"And again it might be----" began the Mugger pettishly.
"Certainly--most certainly," said the Jackal, without waiting
for the other to finish.
"What?" said the Mugger angrily, for he could feel that the
others knew more than he did. "What might it be? _I_ never
finished my words. You said it was a bullock."
"It is anything the Protector of the Poor pleases. I am HIS
servant--not the servant of the thing that crosses the river."
"Whatever it is, it is white-face work," said the Adjutant;
"and for my own part, I would not lie out upon a place so near
to it as this bar."
"You do not know the English as I do," said the Mugger. "There
was a white-face here when the bridge was built, and he would
take a boat in the evenings and shuffle with his feet on the
bottom-boards, and whisper: "Is he here? Is he there? Bring me
my gun." I could hear him before I could see him--each sound
that he made--creaking and puffing and rattling his gun, up and
down the river. As surely as I had picked up one of his workmen,
and thus saved great expense in wood for the burning, so surely
would he come down to the Ghaut, and shout in a loud voice that
he would hunt me, and rid the river of me--the Mugger of Mugger-
Ghaut! ME! Children, I have swum under the bottom of his boat
for hour after hour, and heard him fire his gun at logs; and
when I was well sure he was wearied, I have risen by his side
and snapped my jaws in his face. When the bridge was finished he
went away. All the English hunt in that fashion, except when
they are hunted."
"Who hunts the white-faces?" yapped the Jackal excitedly.
"No one now, but I have hunted them in my time."
"I remember a little of that Hunting. I was young then," said
the Adjutant, clattering his beak significantly.
"I was well established here. My village was being builded for
the third time, as I remember, when my cousin, the Gavial,
brought me word of rich waters above Benares. At first I would
not go, for my cousin, who is a fish-eater, does not always know
the good from the bad; but I heard my people talking in the
evenings, and what they said made me certain."
"And what did they say?" the Jackal asked.
"They said enough to make me, the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut,
leave water and take to my feet. I went by night, using the
littlest streams as they served me; but it was the beginning of
the hot weather, and all streams were low. I crossed dusty
roads; I went through tall grass; I climbed hills in the
moonlight. Even rocks did I climb, children--consider this well.
I crossed the tail of Sirhind, the waterless, before I could
find the set of the little rivers that flow Gungaward. I was a
month"s journey from my own people and the river that I knew.
That was very marvellous!"
"What food on the way?" said the Jackal, who kept his soul in
his little stomach, and was not a bit impressed by the Mugger"s
"That which I could find--COUSIN," said the Mugger slowly,
dragging each word.
Now you do not call a man a cousin in India unless you think you
can establish some kind of blood-relationship, and as it is only
in old fairy-tales that the Mugger ever marries a jackal, the
Jackal knew for what reason he had been suddenly lifted into
the Mugger"s family circle. If they had been alone he would
not have cared, but the Adjutant"s eyes twinkled with mirth
at the ugly jest.
"Assuredly, Father, I might have known," said the Jackal.
A mugger does not care to be called a father of jackals, and the
Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut said as much--and a great deal more which
there is no use in repeating here.
"The Protector of the Poor has claimed kinship. How can I
remember the precise degree? Moreover, we eat the same food.
He has said it," was the Jackal"s reply.
That made matters rather worse, for what the Jackal hinted at
was that the Mugger must have eaten his food on that land-march
fresh and fresh every day, instead of keeping it by him till it
was in a fit and proper condition, as every self-respecting
mugger and most wild beasts do when they can. Indeed, one of the
worst terms of contempt along the River-bed is "eater of fresh
meat." It is nearly as bad as calling a man a cannibal.
"That food was eaten thirty seasons ago," said the Adjutant
quietly. "If we talk for thirty seasons more it will never
come back. Tell us, now, what happened when the good waters were
reached after thy most wonderful land journey. If we listened to
the howling of every jackal the business of the town would stop,
as the saying is.
The Mugger must have been grateful for the interruption, because
he went on, with a rush:
"By the Right and Left of Gunga! when I came there never did I
see such waters!"
"Were they better, then, than the big flood of last season?"
said the Jackal.
"Better! That flood was no more than comes every five years--
a handful of drowned strangers, some chickens, and a dead
bullock in muddy water with cross-currents. But the season
I think of, the river was low, smooth, and even, and, as the
Gavial had warned me, the dead English came down, touching each
other. I got my girth in that season--my girth and my depth.
>From Agra, by Etawah and the broad waters by Allahabad----"
"Oh, the eddy that set under the walls of the fort at
Allahabad!" said the Adjutant. "They came in there like
widgeon to the reeds, and round and round they swung--thus!"
He went off into his horrible dance again, while the Jackal
looked on enviously. He naturally could not remember the
terrible year of the Mutiny they were talking about.
The Mugger continued:
"Yes, by Allahabad one lay still in the slack-water and let
twenty go by to pick one; and, above all, the English were not
cumbered with jewellery and nose-rings and anklets as my women
are nowadays. To delight in ornaments is to end with a rope for
a necklace, as the saying is. All the muggers of all the rivers
grew fat then, but it was my Fate to be fatter than them all.
The news was that the English were being hunted into the
rivers, and by the Right and Left of Gunga! we believed it
was true. So far as I went south I believed it to he true;
and I went down-stream beyond Monghyr and the tombs that look
over the river."
"I know that place," said the Adjutant. "Since those days
Monghyr is a lost city. Very few live there now."
"Thereafter I worked up-stream very slowly and lazily, and a
little above Monghyr there came down a boatful of white-faces--
alive! They were, as I remember, women, lying under a cloth
spread over sticks, and crying aloud. There was never a gun
fired at us, the watchers of the fords in those days. All the
guns were busy elsewhere. We could hear them day and night
inland, coming and going as the wind shifted. I rose up full
before the boat, because I had never seen white-faces alive,
though I knew them well--otherwise. A naked white child kneeled
by the side of the boat, and, stooping over, must needs try to
trail his hands in the river. It is a pretty thing to see how a
child loves running water. I had fed that day, but there was yet
a little unfilled space within me. Still, it was for sport and
not for food that I rose at the child"s hands. They were so
clear a mark that I did not even look when I closed; but they
were so small that though my jaws rang true--I am sure of that--
the child drew them up swiftly, unhurt. They must have passed
between tooth and tooth--those small white hands. I should have
caught him cross-wise at the elbows; but, as I said, it was only
for sport and desire to see new things that I rose at all.
They cried out one after another in the boat, and presently
I rose again to watch them. The boat was too heavy to push over.
They were only women, but he who trusts a woman will walk on
duckweed in a pool, as the saying is: and by the Right and Left
of Gunga, that is truth!"
"Once a woman gave me some dried skin from a fish," said
the Jackal. "I had hoped to get her baby, but horse-food is
better than the kick of a horse, as the saying is. What did
thy woman do?"
"She fired at me with a short gun of a kind I have never seen
before or since. Five times, one after another" (the Mugger must
have met with an old-fashioned revolver); "and I stayed open-
mouthed and gaping, my head in the smoke. Never did I see such
a thing. Five times, as swiftly as I wave my tail--thus!"
The Jackal, who had been growing more and more interested in
the story, had just time to leap back as the huge tail swung by
like a scythe.
"Not before the fifth shot," said the Mugger, as though he had
never dreamed of stunning one of his listeners--" not before the
fifth shot did I sink, and I rose in time to hear a boatman
telling all those white women that I was most certainly dead.
One bullet had gone under a neck-plate of mine. I know not if it
is there still, for the reason I cannot turn my head. Look and
see, child. It will show that my tale is true."
"I?" said the Jackal. "Shall an eater of old shoes, a bone-
cracker, presume, to doubt the word of the Envy of the River?
May my tail be bitten off by blind puppies if the shadow of such
a thought has crossed my humble mind! The Protector of the Poor
has condescended to inform me, his slave, that once in his life
he has been wounded by a woman. That is sufficient, and I will
tell the tale to all my children, asking for no proof."
"Over-much civility is sometimes no better than over-much
discourtesy, for, as the saying is, one can choke a guest with
curds. I do NOT desire that any children of thine should know
that the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut took his only wound from a
woman. They will have much else to think of if they get their
meat as miserably as does their father."
"It is forgotten long ago! It was never said! There never
was a white woman! There was no boat! Nothing whatever happened
The Jackal waved his brush to show how completely everything was
wiped out of his memory, and sat down with an air.
"Indeed, very many things happened," said the Mugger, beaten in
his second attempt that night to get the better of his friend.
(Neither bore malice, however. Eat and be eaten was fair law
along the river, and the Jackal came in for his share of plunder
when the Mugger had finished a meal.) "I left that boat and went
up-stream, and, when I had reached Arrah and the back-waters
behind it, there were no more dead English. The river was empty
for a while. Then came one or two dead, in red coats, not
English, but of one kind all--Hindus and Purbeeahs--then five
and six abreast, and at last, from Arrah to the North beyond
Agra, it was as though whole villages had walked into the water.
They came out of little creeks one after another, as the logs
come down in the Rains. When the river rose they rose also in
companies from the shoals they had rested upon; and the falling
flood dragged them with it across the fields and through the
Jungle by the long hair. All night, too, going North, I heard
the guns, and by day the shod feet of men crossing fords, and
that noise which a heavy cart-wheel makes on sand under water;
and every ripple brought more dead. At last even I was afraid,
for I said: "If this thing happen to men, how shall the Mugger
of Mugger-Ghaut escape?" There were boats, too, that came up
behind me without sails, burning continually, as the cotton-
boats sometimes burn, but never sinking."
"Ah!" said the Adjutant. "Boats like those come to Calcutta of
the South. They are tall and black, they beat up the water
behind them with a tail, and they----"
"Are thrice as big as my village. MY boats were low and white;
they beat up the water on either side of them" and were no
larger than the boats of one who speaks truth should be.
They made me very afraid, and I left water and went back to this
my river, hiding by day and walking by night, when I could not
find little streams to help me. I came to my village again, but
I did not hope to see any of my people there. Yet they were
ploughing and sowing and reaping, and going to and fro in their
fields, as quietly as their own cattle."
"Was there still good food in the river?" said the Jackal.
"More than I had any desire for. Even I--and I do not eat mud--
even I was tired, and, as I remember, a little frightened of
this constant coming down of the silent ones. I heard my people
say in my village that all the English were dead; but those that
came, face down, with the current were NOT English, as my people
saw. Then my people said that it was best to say nothing at all,
but to pay the tax and plough the land. After a long time the
river cleared, and those that came down it had been clearly
drowned by the floods, as I could well see; and though it was
not so easy then to get food, I was heartily glad of it.
A little killing here and there is no bad thing--but even the
Mugger is sometimes satisfied, as the saying is."
"Marvellous! Most truly marvellous!" said the Jackal. "I am
become fat through merely hearing about so much good eating.
And afterward what, if it be permitted to ask, did the Protector
of the Poor do?"
"I said to myself--and by the Right and Left of Gunga! I locked
my jaws on that vow--I said I would never go roving any more.
So I lived by the Ghaut, very close to my own people, and I
watched over them year after year; and they loved me so much
that they threw marigold wreaths at my head whenever they saw it
lift. Yes, and my Fate has been very kind to me, and the river
is good enough to respect my poor and infirm presence; only----"
"No one is all happy from his beak to his tail," said the
Adjutant sympathetically. "What does the Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut
"That little white child which I did not get," said the Mugger,
with a deep sigh. "He was very small, but I have not forgotten.
I am old now, but before I die it is my desire to try one new
thing. It is true they are a heavy-footed, noisy, and foolish
people, and the sport would be small, but I remember the old
days above Benares, and, if the child lives, he will remember
still. It may be he goes up and down the bank of some river,
telling how he once passed his hands between the teeth of the
Mugger of Mugger-Ghaut, and lived to make a tale of it. My Fate
has been very kind, but that plagues me sometimes in my dreams--
the thought of the little white child in the bows of that boat."
He yawned, and closed his jaws. "And now I will rest and think.
Keep silent, my children, and respect the aged."
He turned stiffly, and shuffled to the top of the sand-bar,
while the Jackal drew back with the Adjutant to the shelter of
a tree stranded on the end nearest the railway bridge.
"That was a pleasant and profitable life," he grinned, looking
up inquiringly at the bird who towered above him. "And not once,
mark you, did he think fit to tell me where a morsel might have
been left along the banks. Yet I have told HIM a hundred times
of good things wallowing down-stream. How true is the saying,
"All the world forgets the Jackal and the Barber when the news
has been told!" Now he is going to sleep! Arrh!"
"How can a jackal hunt with a Mugger?" said the Adjutant
coolly. "Big thief and little thief; it is easy to say who
gets the pickings."
The Jackal turned, whining impatiently, and was going to curl
himself up under the tree-trunk, when suddenly he cowered, and
looked up through the draggled branches at the bridge almost
above his head.
"What now?" said the Adjutant, opening his wings uneasily.
"Wait till we see. The wind blows from us to them, but they are
not looking for us--those two men."
"Men, is it? My office protects me. All India knows I am holy."
The Adjutant, being a first-class scavenger, is allowed to go
where he pleases, and so this one never flinched.
"I am not worth a blow from anything better than an old shoe,"
said the Jackal, and listened again. "Hark to that footfall!"
he went on. "That was no country leather, but the shod foot of
a white-face. Listen again! Iron hits iron up there! It is a
gun! Friend, those heavy-footed, foolish English are coming to
speak with the Mugger."
"Warn him, then. He was called Protector of the Poor by some one
not unlike a starving Jackal but a little time ago."
"Let my cousin protect his own hide. He has told me again and
again there is nothing to fear from the white-faces. They must
be white-faces. Not a villager of Mugger-Ghaut would dare to
come after him. See, I said it was a gun! Now, with good luck,
we shall feed before daylight. He cannot hear well out of water,
and--this time it is not a woman!"
A shiny barrel glittered for a minute in the moonlight on the
girders. The Mugger was lying on the sand-bar as still as his
own shadow, his fore-feet spread out a little, his head dropped
between them, snoring like a--mugger.
A voice on the bridge whispered: "It's an odd shot--straight
down almost--but as safe as houses. Better try behind the neck.
Golly! what a brute! The villagers will be wild if he's shot,
though. He's the deota [godling] of these parts."
"Don't care a rap," another voice answered; he took about
fifteen of my best coolies while the bridge was building,
and it's time he was put a stop to. I've been after him in
a boat for weeks. Stand by with the Martini as soon as I've
given him both barrels of this."
"Mind the kick, then. A double four-bore's no joke."
"That's for him to decide. Here goes!"
There was a roar like the sound of a small cannon (the biggest
sort of elephant-rifle is not very different from some
artillery), and a double streak of flame, followed by the
stinging crack of a Martini, whose long bullet makes nothing of
a crocodile's plates. But the explosive bullets did the work.
One of them struck just behind the Mugger's neck, a hand's-
breadth to the left of thle backbone, while the other burst
a little lower down, at the beginning of the tail. In ninety-
nine cases out of a hundred a mortally-wounded crocodile can
scramble to deep water and get away; but the Mugger of Mugger-
Ghaut was literally broken into three pieces. He hardly moved
his head before the life went out of him, and he lay as flat
as the Jackal.
"Thunder and lightning! Lightning and thunder!" said that
miserable little beast. "Has the thing that pulls the covered
carts over the bridge tumbled at last?"
"It is no more than a gun," said the Adjutant, though his
very tail-feathers quivered. "Nothing more than a gun. He is
certainly dead. Here come the white-faces."
The two Englishmen had hurried down from the bridge and across
to the sand-bar, where they stood admiring the length of the
Mugger. Then a native with an axe cut off the big head, and four
men dragged it across the spit.
"The last time that I had my hand in a Mugger's mouth," said one
of the Englishmen, stooping down (he was the man who had built
the bridge), "it was when I was about five years old--coming
down the river by boat to Monghyr. I was a Mutiny baby, as they
call it. Poor mother was in the boat, too, and she often told me
how she fired dad's old pistol at the beast's head."
"Well, you've certainly had your revenge on the chief of the
clan--even if the gun has made your nose bleed. Hi, you boatmen!
Haul that head up the bank, and we'll boil it for the skull.
The skin's too knocked about to keep. Come along to bed now.
This was worth sitting up all night for, wasn't it?"
Curiously enough, the Jackal and the Adjutant made the very same
remark not three minutes after the men had left.
|Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily|
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.